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Quality and yield: Managing hay from field to feeding

Clifford Mitchell Published on 24 May 2012
A square baler

The art of growing and baling high-quality hay is a skill some possess, while some managers lack detail or timing.

Weather, soil management and timing of the cuttings to maximize quality and yield are parts of a bundle of factors that sometimes would rather butt heads than work together to produce high-quality feedstuffs for the herd.

“As producers we try to bridge gaps between high-quality forage resources.

Baling hay is the cheapest insurance policy we have to bridge those gaps,” says Lawton Stewart, extension beef specialist at the University of Georgia.

For most producers, baling hay is almost as tense a time as calving. High-quality hay does not start when the mower goes into the field. Just like the anticipation of calving season, it begins months ahead of time.

“Take a soil sample to know what the soil needs. You have different options available from commercial fertilizers to other sources, like poultry litter in our area. With the price of fertilizer, I would test that hay ground every year,” says Rocky Lemus, extension forage specialist at Mississippi State University.

“A soil sample is the first step to producing high-quality hay,” Stewart says. “In our area, a lot of people rely on chicken litter as an effective, cheap source of fertilizer. A soil sample allows us to fine-tune the fertilization program based on need.”

Timing is the terminology that will keep repeating itself in the quest to produce high-quality hay. This scheduling process needs to be more detailed than most doctors’ appointment books.

“There is a fine line between quality and quantity. Maturity can’t get away from you. It will make a lot of hay, but it won’t be very good.

Get to the point where we can maximize quality and tonnage with each cutting,” Stewart says. “Don’t scalp that pasture when you cut – leave a little residue; it will make a difference how the field recovers for the next cutting.

Spread the nitrogen applications out over the growing season. Have a sharp pencil and see how many times you can afford to go over that field.”

“Time those fertilizer applications,” Lemus says. “You’re not very efficient with just one application. Every time you cut that field, you remove a lot of nutrients.

They have to be replenished for the health of the stand. Potassium is very important to the plant’s immune system and it has an effect on drought and cold hardiness.”

“Cutting frequency or timing of each cutting is very important. In our area, with bermudagrass, it becomes very important to cut that hay every 30 days, otherwise you’re losing quality.”

Weather patterns and moisture are a producer’s best friend or mortal enemy during hay season. Good rains are needed to produce this crop, but most producers will be asking for some help to time those rains right during hay season.

“Once you cut hay and it gets rained on, it’s leaching a lot of nutrients out. It has a worse effect on quality if it gets wet than delaying cutting a few days,” Lemus says. “We usually have some hot and dry days during the haying season.

Sometimes those forages aren’t ready to cut on schedule. You are sacrificing some quality, but yield is also important with the cost of fuel and fertilizer.”

“Five days to a week won’t make a lot of difference in quality if you’re waiting on the weather to clear,” Stewart says. “When that hay gets rained on once, you have leaf scatter and other problems that really can affect quality.”

Baling high-quality hay begins with proper soil maintenance, but it does not end when the bales comes out of the baler. Outfits that manage that hay all the way through feeding season will get the most benefit from their time and labor.

“Get that hay put up and stored right. The first step is to get it off the field. Either store it in a barn or get it off the ground and covered with a tarp,” Stewart says. “You can go from losing zero percent dry matter (DM) to up to 30 percent loss of DM by not storing it properly.”

“Hay removal is very important because of the heat and humidity produced by the hay. If it is left on the field it will harm or kill the stand.

Getting it off the field quickly will make a difference in the quality of the next cutting,” Lemus says. “Proper storage methods are a must for high-quality hay.

Hay will lose 2 to 3 percent DM in the barn and you could easily lose 30 to 40 percent if it’s stored improperly outside.”

After all the steps producers take to get this valuable resource in the barn, some fall just short of reaching perfection. Testing the forage resources will help manage the herd through the winter months.

Adding the word efficiency to the feeding program, rather than doing it because that’s what Dad did or the neighbor does.

“Timing the fertilizer applications and cutting intervals should allow producers to bale high-crude protein hay with very good yields. It pays to test hay and it’s not an expensive test,” Lemus says.  end_mark

PHOTO

There is a fine line between quality and quantity. Maturity can’t get away from you. It will make a lot of hay, but it won’t be very good. Get to the point where we can maximize quality and tonnage with each cutting. Photo by Progressive Cattleman staff.

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